Now, I often talk about dog situations in other countries and refer to them as stains on the society in question. However, that isn’t to say that here in Britain we don’t have our own failings when it comes to dogs.
We call ourselves a nation of dog lovers, yet around 130,000 dogs are abandoned and turned over to shelters each year. We call ourselves dog lovers, yet our preference for pedigrees has given rise to such a lucrative breeding industry, that in many cases the dogs themselves have become of lesser importance to the profits they generate. We call ourselves dog lovers, yet in dog showing circles this love can sometimes only go skin deep.
The 2008 BBC documentary ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’ sent a shock wave through the country. The exposé on the extent at which inbreeding is used, and the prevalence of hereditary disease among pedigree dogs made conditions such as Syringomyelia and brachycephalic much more widely understood terms. Syringomyelia is a condition most often suffered by Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, whereby the dog’s brain is too big for it’s skull. Some dogs show only mild symptoms of discomfort, others develop strange flinching and scratching behaviours, and some endure such agony that they writhe and yelp on the floor and often require risky brain surgery or euthanasia. Brachycephalic on the other hand is the name given to short nosed and flat faced breeds such as Pugs and Bulldogs. Over the years these features have been favoured and bred into the breed more and more until they have become so exaggerated that many brachycephalic breeds have terrible trouble breathing. They also often require surgeries to correct these problems that were actually deliberately bred into them in the first place.
The documentary was controversial on both sides of the fence, with the breeders and The Kennel Club disputing many of the claims made by the programme. Since then, some changes have been implemented and dog shows like Crufts have lost popularity. No less than three official inquiries and reports have been made and The Kennel Club performed a complete overhaul to its Breed Standard criteria. The general public became aware of shocking revelations about the practice of inbreeding to keep bloodlines ‘pure’, often leading to fathers impregnating their daughters and brothers and sisters being mated. You don’t need to be a geneticist to know that this practice is fundamentally flawed, not to mention plain revolting. Thankfully, The Kennel Club has since banned this kind of close relation inbreeding, which is a start. But there is still much more ground to cover.
Aside from the health risks and hereditary diseases still highly prevalent in our pedigree industry, there is also the issue of welfare for the dogs being bred from. There are many responsible dog breeders following extremely good practice, but there are many that are not. The toll is suffered more acutely by the females for obvious reasons, but often both studs and bitches are neither socialised with others dogs, nor with humans. Puppy farms are particularly grisly. Despite the images evoked by a term like ‘puppy farm’ they are far from being places where adorable puppies tumble playfully among long grass and daisies. They are in fact stark, dimly lit industrial puppy manufacturers. The females are isolated in stalls without exercise, affection or stimulation and are bred from until they are utterly worn out. Their fate after that is anyone’s guess, but if anyone’s guess is that they are killed then I would agree with them. The general guidelines put forward by canine welfare organisations to help avoid falling prey to a puppy farm breeder are to never respond to puppy adverts in the newspaper or on the internet, and never buy from a pet shop either. They also urge people to not see sad, desperate looking puppies and be overcome by a desire to rescue them. Instead, they recommend you report the breeder to your local authority, as buying the puppy, regardless of your good intentions, only fuels this industry.
There are an estimated 8 million dogs in the UK. According to the Dog Trust’s ‘Stray Dog Survey’ 126, 176 dogs were picked up in 2011. And an estimated 800,000 puppies are born in the UK each year. These figures highlight the fact there we have more dogs than we have good homes for. Many puppies are turned over to shelters just days after being purchased, and many more are left abandoned. It is crucial that as a nation we alter our current mindset about dog ownership. The dog breeding industry churns out these vast quantities to keep up with demand, and in turn that demand makes it a lucrative business, and profitability will always attract money-makers to any industry. And why are we creating hundreds of thousands of puppies, when we already have so many wonderful dogs in dire need of homes? When we decide to own a dog, what is it about our society that causes so many of us to favour pedigree and puppy, over just giving a dog a home?
Of course, when planning to add a dog to our families we need to consider temperament and compatibility, but with so many homeless dogs up for adoption these needs can still be met. And of course, among the plethora of dogs abandoned each year, a good portion of them are pedigree anyway.
The K-9 Angels plan, as one of their many visions, to make adopting a stray cool. And it IS cool when you consider how adopting a stray is giving a dog a second chance. You are providing a loving home to a desperate and vulnerable animal after it has no doubt had a traumatic experience, and probably averted death along the way. In the case of the Asian meat dog it has averted the dinner plate, so it is incredibly cool to adopt a stray. To look upon a dog and say, ‘it’s alright; you are safe from now on’. Imagine if a great rise in the demand for strays happened. What if the general public starting opting to re-home an existing dog, and gave their money to shelters instead? What if we could make visiting the local pound a normal part of the dog buying process? In an ideal world this would ease the demand for breeding new pups, and make rescuing dogs as equally profitable.
Our dog loving culture is in need of a little modernisation. We need to start realising the current state of affairs. Historically, dogs were created and bred for a multitude of reasons and purposes; by Man. The Boxer did not just walk out of the hills one day and into the village. Neither did the Westie, or the Yorkie, or the Labrador or any of the other breeds and subsequent cross-breeds. We created them for ourselves, be it for hunting, security or companionship, we brought them into existence as we know them today. And now we are failing them. We domesticated them and then deprived them of domesticity. We love them for their looks and bloodline, when really we should love them for their temperaments and the simple fact they are a dog. They are not fashion accessories. They are not extensions of our pride and stature. They are wonderful, sentient beings that have grown so used to humans over the generations that they are little furry toddlers. I am not saying we should stop owning pedigrees. I am not saying we should stop buying puppies. I am not saying strays are for everyone and suit every purpose. I am simply saying that we really need to start factoring strays into our considerations when planning for a dog, and we need to be far more responsible when we buy from breeders so as to starve out the ones giving the rest a bad name.
The dogs that the K-9 Angels rescue from Romania and Thailand are impossible to categorise in terms of breed. How significant is this in reality though? If we were to trace back our own bloodlines to find we were a mixture of Swedish, Finnish, French, African, Chinese, and Thai… would we consider ourselves lesser human beings? The assortment of size and shape that exists under one category is one of the broadest in the animal kingdom when it comes to the species banner of ‘dog’. Yet their temperaments and behaviours span a much less diverse spectrum. Yes, even this rather narrow spectrum has it extreme ends, but then, so does the human personality spectrum, and yet we all know what we are referring to when we speak of ‘human nature’. By this same token it is not much of a stretch to say that dogs have a certain universal nature, be they big, small, purebred or mixed. So, my point is, if you are planning to add a furry friend to your family you will get just as much fun, affection and pleasure out of homing a stray. If that stray is also mixed breed then it is also going to have greatly reduced risks of hereditary disease and inbreeding. And if that stray has also been rescued from a desperate situation then surely the glow of satisfaction on both his face and yours is the crowning glory?
Help the K-9 Angels give strays a chance.